What Beauty Product Testing Claims Really Mean

Whether it's "expert-graded" or "consumer-perception"-based, clinical testing can prove efficacy claims for skin-care products — but what exactly goes into that testing?

In an increasingly crowded beauty market, consumer trust and brand authority are crucial to success — and perhaps the best way to build that credibility is through proven product efficacy and results. As most beauty marketers, founders and executives will attest, consumers are smarter than ever, and simply copy-and-pasting far-reaching claims onto packaging is no longer enough. It's one thing to say your product works; it's quite another to have the data to prove it.

So how exactly do brands prove efficacy? In skin care, clinical testing is key. But it's not simple. Ideally, clinical testing would be all it took to distinguish a top-notch beauty product from a dud. But, as is often the case, the ideal is not the reality, leaving consumers with more confusing claims to decipher.

"Clinical studies, particularly for general consumer products including cosmetic products, may be highly variable with respect to how they are designed and what type of endpoints they study," says Dr. Sarina Elmariah, a board-certified dermatologist and neuroscientist, who is also the co-founder of Aramore Skincare.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, claims of "clinical testing" and "clinically proven" only confirm that a product was given to consumers to test — it does not mean a product underwent clinical trials. "Clinical testing" serves as an umbrella term, and distinctions within that category are not always made clear to consumers.

To start with, the world of clinical testing can be broken down into two very different groups: Expert-graded/instrumental clinical studies and consumer perception studies.

What are expert-graded/instrumental clinical studies?

Per Dr. Corey L. Hartman, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, "expert-graded" or "instrumental" clinical studies are research methods that use clearly defined and held-to measurements and standards — that is to say, the research, testing and results are wholly unbiased and objective. According to cosmetic chemist and adjunct professor of cosmetic science at the University of Toledo, Kelly Dobos, these studies are conducted in laboratories or clinical settings where conditions such as temperature, humidity and lighting can be controlled, in order to ensure accuracy. These kinds of tests are also called "quantitative tests," since they provide hard numbers and  objective data from measurements.

Clinical studies can measure virtually anything, with nearly infinite parameters: wrinkle depth, hyperpigmentation or discoloration severity, number of acne lesions or blemishes, overall brightness or radiance, dryness, hydration status, etc. The commonality between all these types of tests is that the process by which researchers collect information is clearly defined beforehand, and that information is gathered without bias, Dr. Hartman explains.

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And while some expert grading may be based on visual or tactile inspection, Dr. Elmariah notes that they're almost always accompanied by some sort of biophysical instrumental evaluation as well. Let's also not forget that expert graders are just that: experts. These individuals tend to be medical or research professionals, and are trained to recognize and differentiate changes in the skin or hair, as well as how to describe baseline conditions, Dobos explains.

The instruments they use may include different types of imaging or devices to measure moisture content or water loss, skin integrity and roughness, pigment and color, pH, oil production and more, per Dr. Elmariah.

"What's important is that both the instruments and clinical graders are calibrated," says Dobos. "They are periodically tested against standards to ensure the reliability of measurements or observations."

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To ensure those levels of reliability, these studies are typically highly regimented, conducted over a uniform period of time (e.g. four to eight weeks) with specific instructions for product use (e.g. apply twice daily, with no additional products). And, according to Dr. Elmariah, results are then compared at different intervals of time compared to the baseline.

But that's not to say this type of testing is always without fault. For example, demographics can largely influence a test's outcome, and expert-graded/instrumental clinical studies are notoriously un-diverse, so much so that it can potentially skew results.

What are consumer perception studies?

Consumer perception studies similarly focus on measuring the endpoints of a treatment and address similar parameters, but do so in an entirely different manner. In the simplest of terms, consumer perception studies are surveys; according to Dr. Elmariah, these types of studies elicit consumer experience or feedback by using qualitative questionnaires or subjective reports of change (using terms like "improvement," "worsening" or "no effect").

If expert-graded clinical studies are bias-free, consumer perception studies are all bias. After all, every consumer has an opinion in one way or another, and when a general population of consumers (with no scientific training) are polled on a particular topic, results are bound to include those inclinations. Beyond tangible biases, responses can be highly variable depending on the specifics about the individual, particularly with regard to their own skin or hair concerns, as well as both frequency and duration of product use.

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As Dobos explains, consumer perception studies rely on subjective description and interpretation, and because of this, results are harder to generalize in a meaningful way. Still, she notes that a higher number of subjects in these kinds of studies can help bring more confidence as patterns emerge — but, of course, that can add significant costs.

In many cases, consumer perception results can easily be disguised or distorted as facts. For example, let's consider the claim: "89% of users felt the product made their skin feel and look more hydrated and firm." As a whole, the statement is factual; these are the results of their consumer perception study. But it fails to consider a bevy of nuances — who are these users? How old are they? What was their skin like before? What are their usual skin-care routines like?

Regardless of what in particular is being tested, tester demographic and skin type are major factors. An 80-year-old who doesn't regularly wash their face is going to feel differently about a product than, say, a teenager on a strict anti-acne regimen.

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Not to mention the fact that it's perfectly acceptable to conduct consumer-perception studies on employees, who might feel a vested interest in the success of a new launch. And brands have no obligation to include important factors like number of participants, what a study entailed, how long the study lasted, all participant results and whether those results were replicable in different groups of people.

Dr. Elmariah and Dobos suggest looking for terms that indicate opinion — said, felt, reported, experienced, agreed, saw — and subjectivity — smaller-looking, visibly improved, appeared — to identify consumer perception results.

Which type of testing is 'better'?

Both Dobos and Dr. Hartman are quick to say they believe only expert-graded clinical studies should fall under the "clinically tested" umbrella, though they acknowledge that both types of testing tend to use the same terminology. And, as Dr. Elmariah points out, savvy marketing can make it particularly challenging to distinguish between the two.

"Both are beneficial in different ways," says Dobos. "And, in my experience, they are complementary."

Meanwhile, Dr. Elmariah and Dr. Hartman both prefer instrumental clinical studies. As Dr. Elmariah puts it: "They reflect validated, repeatable measurements within the context of a clinical study in which the types of patients (age, gender), duration of the study and mode of product use are reported, making it more useful for the general public."

But, of course, the general public has to actually understand those findings for them to be helpful or informative. That objective data isn't all that meaningful if a consumer can't clearly perceive those outcomes.

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What's more, while many brands now employ a mix of both expert-graded clinical studies and consumer perception studies, the omission of either type of clinical study (or even of both) doesn't inherently mean a product is somehow "bad," unsafe or unreliable. Basic clinical testing averages around $20,000 to $50,000, based on our research. And a self-funded brand may choose to spend its limited resources on high-quality ingredients (or cutting-edge technology, less wasteful friendly packaging, etc.) rather than clinical studies.

Plus, not all products even need clinical testing to have trustworthy claims, as there are tons of studies on individual ingredients. For example, retinol has been widely proven to improve wrinkles, so a brand might not want to waste money on clinical testing for a retinol serum when there is already so much clinical proof of the ingredient's efficacy available. On top of all that, any product must meet certain federal standards in order to be sold to consumers in the first place.

"Clinical testing and clear reporting of those results are great — but ultimately, any product sold in the U.S. has to be held to certain standards of health and safety," says Dr. Hartman. "That's a good baseline and then additional research on top is helpful as consumers make decisions on what to purchase."

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